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Redevelopment Project Set in WRJ

  • Hanover, N.H., developer Bill Bittinger plans to break ground in fall 2016 on a four-story, mixed-used building, seen at left in this rendering, at the corner of Bridge and North Main streets in White River Junction, Vt. (Courtesy Kane Architecture)



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 20, 2016

White River Junction — After a year of delays, developer Bill Bittinger now is poised to break ground on a $4.4 million four-story building with 17 rental units on a grassy lot at the corner of Bridge and North Main streets that has been vacant for more than a decade,

He said he is bidding out the work on the project now, and hopes to begin construction by November, with a target opening of spring 2017.

“We have all of our approvals and all our funding commitments in place,” he said.

In April 2015, while successfully petitioning the town of Hartford to apply for a grant from the Vermont Economic Development Authority in support of the project, Bittinger said that he had hoped to break ground last fall.

Bittinger said on Monday that the target construction date changed because it took longer than he initially expected to cobble together financing for the project; the $150,000 VEDA grant, which was approved last month, was the last piece of funding, with other sources including the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, the non-profit housing group Home, and Efficiency Vermont.

The building, which will also hold a commercial tenant that has not yet been identified, is slated for the 4,600-square-foot lot formerly occupied by the White River Amusement Pub, which burned down in 2005.

Bittinger said the project will be managed by the Vermont State Housing Authority.

Area residents hope it will help to alleviate a tight rental market.

Only 250 of 10,000 rental units in Lebanon, Hanover, Hartford and nearby towns were vacant last summer, according to a survey by the Upper Valley Housing Coalition.

“There's lots of stuff that costs over $1,000 a month,” said Daniel Eglovitch, 23. “But for me, there's a lack of options.”

Eglovitch moved to the area eight months ago. He liked the feel of the downtown area, which he said is much more “crunchy and outdoorsy” than his home state of Maryland, but still has the advantages of a walkable neighborhood.

But he was surprised at how difficult it was to find a rental within his price range, which he described as below $1,000 a month.

Outside of the Burlington metropolitan statistical area, Windsor County has the highest average rental rate in the state, according to the 2016 Vermont state report of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

In order to afford the average two-bedroom apartment rent of $1,041, a Windsor County renter must earn $20.02 per hour, far more than the $11.41 per hour the average renter actually makes, according to the coalition, which uses fair market rent rates calculated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other federal statistics to generate its reports.

Against that backdrop, Bittinger's rental units at Bridge and Main, most of which he said will be priced below market value, will be in high demand.

On the town's 2015 grant application, Bittinger projected that, of the 17 one-bedroom units, two would be priced for low-income tenants, 14 for low-to-moderate-income tenants, and one at the fair market value, which was, at that time, $890.

On Monday, Bittinger said those figures had changed; the actual rents had not been firmed up, he said, and “a majority” would go to low or moderate-income tenants.

In recent months, two other developers in the downtown area — David Briggs and Mike Davidson — have questioned the town's impact fee structure, which is ostensibly designed to compel developers to pay an upfront fee that will mitigate the added burden a new building and its occupants would place on town and school services. The Selectboard has asked Town Manager Leo Pullar to prepare options that could include revamping the fee structure or eliminate it altogether.

On Monday, Bittinger, who has successfully completed three different building projects on Railroad Row over the past 10 years, weighed in on the issue after being asked by a reporter.

“I'm delighted the new town manager is going to hold hearings and the Selectboard is going to take up the request for the revisiting of the policy,” he said.

He said his main concern with the existing fee structure is that it doesn't make a distinction between buildings on undeveloped land, and buildings on lots that have existing buildings, with the latter, he said, having a lower actual impact on town services.

“Clearly, in my view, two different tiers exist here,” he said. “I'm optimistic the town will look at this in a way that will make a distinction between the two.”

Bittinger said that he likes siting his projects in White River Junction, which he said is seeing a slow but sure resurgence, attracting new residents like Eglovitch.

“Where I'm from, walkability is big,” he said. “You can walk to get food. Walk to the bar, walk to work.”

Laura Foley, a poet from Pomfret who was walking out of the Tuckerbox restaurant, said she was happy to hear that the project was moving forward.

“Why not have more people living here?” she said. “It's good for businesses.” 

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.